TUSCALOOSA _ Exactly one year to the day the University of Alabama played in the BCS National Championship Game, three key players from that title run declared themselves eligible for 2011 NFL Draft on Friday afternoon.
While running back Mark Ingram, wide receiver Julio Jones and defensive lineman Marcell Dareus are all expected to be first-round selections, sophomore linebacker Dont'a Hightower announced that he's staying on the Capstone.
"It's been the best experience of my life," said Ingram, the 2009 Heisman Trophy winner. "Great experience and I'll never forget it. Alabama will always have a special place in my heart. I'll always bleed crimson."
Other players are still weighing their options about whether to forego their remaining collegiate eligibility, primarily junior safety Mark Barron and junior wide receiver Marquis Maze - neither of whom would likely be selected in the first round. The deadline to submit the paperwork is Jan. 15.
"In this case, each and every one of these guys, these young men, have made a very good decision," Coach Nick Saban said about all four players.
"At no time have I been more pleased and proud with a group of young men in terms of their accomplishments, their achievements, and the class that they had in terms of how they represented this institution."
Only once in draft history has Alabama had three first-round selections, 1993. Defensive end John Copeland was the fifth-overall selection by the Cincinnati Bengals, defensive end Eric Curry was the next pick by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and safety George Teague went 29th to the Green Bay Packers.
Being selected in the mid-first round last year translated into a five-year, $15 million contract with roughly $11 million guaranteed, although escalating rookie salaries, especially the guaranteed money, is expected to be a major part of the labor negotiations with a potential lockout looming.
"Mentally my father has prepared me for any obstacle," Ingram said. "Just things I've been through in life will help me with the business aspect of the NFL. I'm excited about it and I'm willing to learn."
Ingram, considered the top running back in the draft, finished his collegiate career with 3,261 rushing yards, fourth on the Alabama all-time list, but ran in 42 touchdowns to set the Crimson Tide career record. Consequently, his last, the 6-yard score against Michigan State in the Capital One Bowl to top Shaun Alexander's mark of 41, may be his favorite.
Of the three, Jones had the hardest decision, calling Alabama his "home away from home."
"It was very tough," he said. "I went back and forth. I was just like signing day and where I was going to go. It felt like that all over again. "My family was behind me if I came back to school, and if I leave they're still going to be behind me. I feel it's in me and my family's best interest just to move on. I feel like I'm ready to make that next step."
Jones started 40 games during his three-year career and set Alabama single-season records for yards (1,133) and receptions (78) despite sustaining a broken hand at South Carolina. He finished second in career (2,653) yards and receptions (179).
"Julio is probably a guy who is as fine a person, as good a competitor as hard a worked and as a good a guy on the team as anybody I've ever coached," Saban said. "Never an issue, never a problem, always respectful, always does everything he can to try and please."
Jones, A.J. Green of Georgia and Justin Blackmon from Oklahoma State are considered the three big-name draft prospects at wide receiver.
Dareus, meanwhile, is one of a dozen defensive linemen with first-round potential, including Clemson end Da'Quan Bowers, Auburn nose tackle Nick Fairley, North Carolina defensive end Robert Quinn, Purdue defensive end Ryan Kerrigan, who could all be top 10 picks.
How he might potentially fit into each team's defensive scheme will affect his eventual destination.
"I can play four-three, three-four, one-ten," Dareus said. "In a four-three I feel like I'm an inside guy."
Hightower's decision to come back appears to have been the easiest due to his knee surgery in 2009, which clearly hurt his draft stock. The redshirt sophomore told reporters that he talked with junior linebacker Courtney Upshaw before finalizing has plans and hopes that Barron comes back as well after having surgery to repair a torn pectoral muscle.
"Right now it's time to elevate," Hightower said. "A lot of people are just kind of sitting around right now with this being the offseason, but I feel like I have a lot more catching up to do as far as extra rehab on my knee, especially times like this when it's cold outside guys aren't as active.
"I know I can play a lot better than what I was playing. It wasn't that hard to see. Anybody could see that. Plus the fact that I could come back, graduate in the fall and have my degree was something that coach Saban always preached about and it's something that my family, my mom especially, really believes in."
All three departing players said they want to keep working toward their degrees as well.
"I'm 27 credits away," Ingram said. "I'm pretty close. I probably would graduate in December if I had stayed in school. I'm going to work hard and do what I can to get closer to getting my degree.
"I have two promises to keep, one to myself and one to my mom as well."
Underclassmen who have declared for the 2011 NFL Draft
Player Position College
Akeem Ayers OLB UCLA
Da'Quan Bowers DE Clemson
Brandon Boykin CB Georgia
DeAndre Brown WR Southern Miss
Brandon Burton CB Utah
Jurrell Casey DT Southern Cal
John Clay RB Wisconsin
Marcell Dareus DT Alabama
Tandon Doss WR Indiana
Darren Evans RB Virginia Tech
Blaine Gabbert QB Missouri
A.J. Green WR Georgia
Tori Gurley WR South Carolina
Brandon Harris CB Miami (FL)
Justin Houston OLB Georgia
Mark Ingram RB Alabama
Janoris Jenkins CB Florida
Julio Jones WR Alabama
Tom Keiser OLB Stanford
Dion Lewis RB Pittsburgh
Ryan Mallett QB Arkansas
Rahim Moore S UCLA
Zane Parr DE Virginia
Kyle Rudolph TE Notre Dame
Aldon Smith DE Missouri
Torrey Smith WR Maryland
Tyron Smith OT Southern Cal
Jordan Todman RB Connecticut
Shane Vereen RB California
J.J. Watt DE Wisconsin
Muhammad Wilkerson DT Temple
Aaron Williams CB Texas
Rumph's addition official
Alabama announced the hiring of Chris Rumph, who will replace Bo Davis as the defensive line coach. This past season he was the position coach for Bowers, who led the nation in sacks (15.5) and was tied for first in the NCAA in tackles for loss (26.0).
"I'm excited about the opportunity to join the staff at the University of Alabama and work with Coach Saban," Rumph said in a statement. "He is the best head coach in college football and this is really a great chance learn from Coach Saban and further develop as a coach. Growing up in the southeast, the history and tradition at Alabama is something I have appreciated since I was a kid and it will be an honor to coach at such a storied program. My wife and kids are looking forward to making the move to Tuscaloosa and becoming a part of the University of Alabama. God has truly blessed me and my family."